Articles in the LOOKOUT section of this website span a number of decades and are re-published on behalf of Adrian van Leen for research purposes. Original dates are being added to articles so as to place them in their correct historical setting(s). Adrian has endeavoured to be as fair and accurate as possible at the time of the original writing, but please note that the original article information may no longer reflect the subsequent or current actions, values, beliefs, positions, opinions, teachings or policies held by individuals, groups and/or organisations referred to in the original published article at the time of writing. As people change and move on, the same often applies to related Internet links; some links referred to in articles may have been changed or may no longer be available online.
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Almost everyone is vulnerable to religious deception - CCGM Tract.
Through the ages religion has been used by conmen and cult leaders to deceive, control, and manipulate people.
Yet many tend to believe that religious people, and especially religious leaders, are trustworthy and tend to believe whatever such people tell them. The more authoritatively they make their statements, the more they are believed.
The problem is compounded and further complicated when we realise that many of today’s cults and extreme Christian fringe groups may have started as genuine Christian groups, led by genuine Christian leaders.
JIM JONES, who skyrocketed to infamy through the Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy of November 1978, started as a genuine Christian minister. He ministered to people neglected by the established churches.
DAVID BERG, leader of the notorious Children of God/Family cult, was a genuine Christian minister. He reached out to Hippies and other groups, not reached by the established churches, in the mid-seventies.
IN BOTH CASES (and in others) these leaders led their followers astray as they gained more and more power and authority over them. The people began to follow them, instead of following Jesus Christ.
Despite the Jonestown tragedy (and others, for example, such as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians; the Order of the Solar Temple; the Heaven’s Gate group ), the dangers and potential for further tragedies are still there.
Cults are continuing to grow, as they con and deceive sincere seekers. People are psychologically and spiritually scarred and marred through the manipulations of men (and women) whose leadership become power hungry ego trips.
For Christians, and others, the confusion is compounded today with the enormous growth of independent groups, fellowships. Many of these are simply known as the ’...[name of locality] Christian Fellowship’. A group with such a name can be a genuine Christian group, a group of ex-cultists, an extreme Christian fringe group - charismatic, pro-charismatic or anti-charismatic, or a cult. Many of these ’Fellowships’ have breakaway splinter groups which in turn may end up with further breakaways. The growth of these little independent groups, all led by people claiming God told them to start their own church, has almost become epidemic.
Sadly the neglects, errors, and ’wishy-washiness’ of many of the established churches is helping to advance these many little splinter groups, and the confusion of Christians.
THERE IS NO GUARANTEED WAY for Christians to know beforehand if the group or church they belong to, and its leader/pastor/minister, is going to ’go off the rails’. It can happen in any group. But there are some danger signals, or warnings, that are indicators that things are not right. The following are some of them:
AUTHORITY - What authority structures exist in you church/group? Independent groups may have no outside authorities or controls to pull the pastor into line, should he go ’off beam’. Is the pastor the sole authority in the church? Does he claim that authority is totally from God and no one else can question his authority or call him to account? Does he reject any questioning of his authority as a Satanic attack? Is any of the authority shared by Elders, or other leaders, who are accountable to the rest of the church? Can the church/group remove the pastor/leader should the need arise, or does he control the church/group.
EXCLUSIVENESS - Does your church, and its leader, make exclusive claims to being the only true church, or the only church/group that teaches all the truth/the whole Gospel? Are there claims that other groups are not quite Christian, because they don’t accept this group’s leadership? Does the leader avoid fellowship/counsel/advice from ministers/leaders in other churches? Does your leader claim/regard himself as more spiritual than other leaders or members in your church/group? Is your minister/leader constantly doing ’his own thing’ regardless of the wishes of other leaders or the majority of the congregation? Are you afraid to disagree with him?
MATURITY - How mature a Christian is your pastor/leader? How long has he been preparing for his calling as a Christian leader? REMEMBER Moses spent 40 years in the palaces of Egypt, and another 40 years looking after sheep in the wilderness, before God regarded him as prepared and ready for his ministry. And our Lord had thirty years of preparation for a brief 3 year ministry. Has he been a recent convert to Christ? (We have heard of people who have been cult members and then within two years have become [self-proclaimed] pastors, and leading a group of Christians.) Paul warns against giving recent converts such responsibility (1 Tim 3:6). Has his preparation and training for the very responsible task of spiritual oversight been thorough and balanced? If not, there is a real danger that the teaching and the group will end up unbalanced also. (Those who argue that you don’t need training to be a minister/pastor, and that the disciples were untrained fishermen, ignore the evidence of Scripture. The first apostles were thoroughly trained by Jesus Christ for three years, including some practical experience, before they really began their ministry.)
PUBLIC PERFORMANCE - Is the emphasis in your church/group in the public performance of your pastor/leader? Some cult leaders, conmen, and Christian ministers can give very polished persuasive public performances, using all the right words and pulling on the right heart strings - but that does not always mean that it is honouring to God. Often the attention is drawn to the performer, rather than to God. Beware of those who use reverse psychology, telling you one thing, but really saying/meaning the opposite. Beware of pastors/leaders who are always talking about the need for members to look at Jesus not at them - always telling people about the need for humility, and giving the verbal impression that they have humility. Real humility, pointing to Jesus and away from the pastor becomes obvious in pastors and leaders without them having to talk about it and constantly draw attention to it. The more they talk about it, the more, in fact, they draw attention to themselves. Is your minister constantly being put on a pedestal?
BEWARE OF FLATTERY - Honest praise, when it is deserved, has its right place, but praise and flattery can be overdone to impress and manipulate. If your group/pastor/leader gives a lot of praise when you conform and don’t question - be careful. Those who are financially well-off are often the target for flattery. Are those who are financial, or who have influence in the community, singled out for more praise by the pastor/leader, or the group? Are those people, and those with special abilities, possessions, equipment etc. given more public prominence, love, attention and praise?
EVASIVENESS - Is there a secrecy and evasiveness about the church leadership, the pastor’s background, any of the church’s/group’s activities, or about finances (where money comes from and what is done with it)??
Are people discouraged form questioning the leadership authority or activities? Are question about biblical interpretation avoided or evaded? Are people told that those who constantly ask questions will never grow? Are you told that if you have questions about teachings/biblical interpretation or understanding you should simply ’run with the Word’ or shelve your questions - that the answers or explanations will come later, or come to you as you grow in your understanding?
Are you made to feel that the pastor/leader is more spiritual and therefore has a deeper understanding of truth (of which you, supposedly being less spiritual, are not capable) and therefore you should simply trust him/her/them?
Are questions ’answered’ with a lot of words/jargon that leaves you wondering as to whether your question was really understood and answered in spite of all the words that were spoken in response?
EMOTIONAL PRESSURE - Do you feel that you are constantly put under emotional pressure in your church/group? Do you feel you are constantly made to feel guilty and unworthy, with no hope and assurance? Are you pressured not to talk to anyone about your problems or needs? Do you feel pressured to ’fake’ an experience because otherwise you won’t be regarded as ’spiritual’ enough? Do you feel emotionally pressured to give extra money to the church/group - from being constantly told people are not giving enough to God, to being told ’The Lord is telling me that there is someone here tonight who is going to give a thousand dollars. You know the Lord is telling you to give that tonight. Give it now...’??
SOME OF THESE THINGS in themselves, and by themselves, may not be wrong, or serious, but when there are questions that come up in a number of these areas; when you feel uneasy about some of these issues; when answers are avoided or evaded; when you are made to feel guilty for ’daring to doubt the Lord’s anointed’; when you are told that raising questions about finances (or other things) is simply ’Satan attacking God’s servants or cause, and trying to destroy the faith of His people’; when you are told that asking your questions, and raising your concerns, with others, is the negative and terrible sin of gossiping; when there are no controls over the leadership and the church/group is powerless to discipline or dismiss the pastor/leader - then you’re in a group that is heading for problems.
OUR LORD did not condemn Thomas when he would not just accept the statement of the other apostles that Jesus was alive again.
Jesus told Thomas to examine his hands and side - to examine the evidence - for himself. He showed Thomas exactly what he had earlier shown the other apostles. He didn’t condemn Thomas for doubting, he encouraged him to check the facts for himself so that his doubts would be removed (read John 20:19-29) Jesus also encourages us not to just accept everything at face value but to use critical discernment - especially about religious teachings. (read John 7:14-24 - esp. v 24)
We read in Acts 17:10-12 that the Jews in Berea were more noble than those elsewhere because they listened to Paul and Silas and then daily examined the Scriptures to see if what these men were preaching was true.
The apostle Paul tells us to ’test everything; hold fast to what is good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
IF YOU HAVE UNCERTAINTIES examine your church/group and its leadership. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to discuss your concerns with others - that is NOT gossiping. Christ won’t condemn you for asking questions and thinking things through for yourself. Above all, constantly check things out in the bible for yourself - always reading things in their widest possible context.
God, through the Holy Spirit, will guide you into His truth, and out of error, if you are prepared to use the thinking abilities He has given you (don’t just allow your feelings to guide you - they may be manipulated by others, or they may be just your own feelings).
THINK THROUGH some of these warning signs and danger signals as you commit yourself afresh to Jesus Christ. Keep your eyes on Him; think for yourself; study the Scriptures in context; and grow in your relationship with Christ and in maturity of faith.